Rosh Hashannah Evening
29 Elul 5775
Reform is a Verb
65 years ago Temple Emanu-El was born. A small group of enthusiastic and dedicated people gathered to form a home for Reform Judaism in Utica in February of 1950. By March the 60 member congregation pledged “to serve the Jewish people by providing a place where they may worship and where the teachings of Judaism may be known, and to advance the welfare of all those who may come under its influence.” Quickly the congregation grew, became members of the reform movement, and even acquired a part-time rabbi. In September of 1950, Temple Emanu-El welcomed in the New Year, Rosh Hashannah, for the very first time as a congregation.
The temple’s 65 year history has been rich, filled with vibrancy and evolution—and some phenomenal rabbis such as Rabbi Waldman and our rabbi emeritis, Rabbi Bamberger. Since 1950, the congregation has gone through a number of changes, as we’ve adapted to changing modernity.
Innovation and adaptation are, after all, so much a part of Jewish history.
It’s hard to believe, but at one time prayer itself was a radical innovation. During Temple times, worship was largely composed of Temple sacrifice: offerings of doves or goats to God.
When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70CE, the Israelites, whose worship centered primarily on the Temple, were struck with a very new reality. At this point, Judaism could easily have ceased to be. But it didn’t.
Rabbis began to develop formal prayer, and worship. This was the beginning of the prayer services that we’ve come to know and love. Though prayer was originally a spontaneous expression from one’s heart, over time worship became more static. It became increasingly hard to edit them.
In the 11th century, poets, called payyetanim decided to innovate. Finding that religious language could at times be a barrier to entry, they used poetry as a bridge between their religious life and the booming creativity of the 11th century Muslim world surrounded them.Including poetry helped people to see the world differently, engaging everyone, in the words of Edward Hirsh, “in something deeper than intellect and emotion.”“That ‘something deeper’ is the spiritual core of our lives,” explains Sheldon Marder, by awakening and refreshing perception, cultivating intimacy, encouraging connections to others as well as to God.1
But that wasn’t the only kind of innovation.
The French revolution rocked the Jewish world. Jews were emancipated. Finally it was okay to assimilate. Jews struggled with how to balance their religious and secular lives, each coming up with their own solutions. Some decided not to keep kosher, to wear modern clothing, or to surround themselves with secular music.
Reform Judaism was born.
Early reformers wanted change. They believed “that the devil most to be feared was tradition,” explains Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. “By modern standards, these pioneer rabbis were not liberal, if by liberal, we mean laissez-faire, anything goes, live and let live. They knew tradition exceptionally well, and valued it; but they knew also how the printed liturgy and its codified regulations had spun out of control to become a liturgical tail wagging the would-be worshipping dog.”2
Reformers craved prayerful music that spoke to them not just as Jews but as people of the modern age. They craved prayer not just in Hebrew but also in the vernacular—the language they understood.
Conservatives, much like the rabbis who emphasized Halacha over minhag, deeply disliked the reformer’s changes. They wanted to uphold tradition as they understood it. To them, that was true Judaism. The invent of the printing press had given them a powerful weapon: codes of law were finalized and printed. Prayer books were codified, and nearly impetitrable.
But the reformers, in their brilliance, decided to use the printing press for their own needs: printing new prayer books that would meet the needs of the modern day Jew, who strived to balance the blessings of modern individuality with the inherence of Jewish community.
Enter the Union Prayer book.
Temple Emanu-El’s first prayer book was the UPB, a small leatherette book put together in the late 19th century3 which fit comfortably and beautifully in the crease of one’s hand, and contained all the services for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in one volume.
But the Union Prayer book left out so much. It is true that one of the reform movement’ great innovations was editing—take out prayers deemed repetitious or not in line with modern understandings of theology.
Reform rabbis, such as Jacob Petuchowski believed that every word we say in prayer “demands absolutely honesty.” Prayerbooks, he explained, should “contain only such statements as are factually correct, literally true, and historically verifiable.”4 For this reason, the Union prayer book took out prayers with references to sacrifices, rebuilding the temple, and resurrecting the dead.5 In fact it took out Kol Nidrei—the heart of the evening Yom Kippur services—and most of the Unetaneh Tokef, hiding a shortened version of it in the YK afternoon service, but taking it out of the RH & YK morning services, entirely.
Can you imagine Yom Kippur without Kol Nidrei?
Rosh Hashannah or Yom Kippur morning without Unetaneh Tokef?
“Let us affirm the majesty and holiness of this day, for it is one of awe and dread.”6
These words of Unetaneh Tokef speak to the sanctity and majesty of the day, but the reformers struggled with the words that came next.
“On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to bel
Who shall live and who shall die
Who shall perish by fire and who by water
Who by hunger and who by thirst
Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled.”7
Its words are challenging—the reason our early reformers omitted them. They feared these words would lead people to believe that any misfortune to fall upon them was their fault, that loved ones who died were punished for their ill-actions.
Over time, reformers began to wonder if that was the only to look at the prayer. What if instead of omitting it, we were to include it in a prayer book once more—and wrestle with it?
What if instead of seeing in it a painful message of guilt, for example, it inspired us to consider to what extent in this world life is out of our hands, and to what extent we can control our own fate?
As is written in the Gates of Repentance:
“Repentance, prayer and charity temple judgment’s severe decree.” (109)
By the 1970s, the reform movement had grown to be very diverse. Some congregations longed for more Hebrew text. Others wanted contemporary language, which they believed would be make it easier to connect with God. Some loved the personal yet archaic language of the Union Prayer Book, and others wanted prayers that were less personal, and more generic, congregational prayers.
In 1978, the Gates of Repentance came out, with a variety of options for each service—striving to meet the needs of a newly diverse reform movement. It included some personal prayers, and some more generic ones, English readings, and more Hebrew prayers than had appeared in the Union Prayer Book. But because of the embarrassment that many reform Jews didn’t know Hebrew, transliterations were sparse, and even those were hidden in the back of the book—a feeling we’ve thankfully overcome before the creation of our new prayerbook.
When the congregation switched to the Gated of Repentance, immediately there were aspects about it that were celebrated, though many of us also longed for the beautiful, and personal language that was so artistically rendered in the Union Prayer Book.
Today, as we switch from the Gates of Repentance to Mishkan HaNefesh, there is no doubt that there is much to celebrate, but there will perhaps be some things we’ll miss about Gates of Repentance, as well.
Nonetheless we joyfully make this transition because we recognize that the world is vastly different than it was just 40 years ago. Early reformers had certainty about what God was and was not—what God could and could not do. But today we are far less certain. “We are suspect of almost all absolute truth claims, including those that emanate from our own denominational camp,” Rabbi Leon Morris explains. “For many of us, contemporary Jewish theology is less about what we know with certainty to be true and much more about religious ways of organizing and conceiving the world. If medieval and modern Jewish theology were prose, ours is a theology of poetry.” Although once achievable, the expectation that any prayer book could can be in line with our collective contemporary theology is now simply impossible.8
The editors of Mishkan HaNefesh recognized that just as the Torah holds over 100 names for God, each of us relate to God and spirituality a little differently. For that reason the readings and prayers contained within are multifaceted, with something to which hopefully all of us can relate, from personal to communal prayers, traditional renderings of prayers to modern, and creative interpretations.9
In recent decades there has been a tend to delve into lifelong Jewish study, connecting with texts in new and exciting ways, creating a greater appreciation for the Hebrew, and prayer’s origins. Whereas before the reform movement took out many texts that might have caused theological hardship, many of us today wish to delve into these texts so that we can wrestle with their true meaning, and what we can learn from them today. Today we privilege interpretation over revision. We are willing and excited to determine for ourselves the meaning that prayers can offer as, individually, today. We are more comfortable than ever to read texts on multiple levels simultaneously, and to understand the words of our prayer books as ones of poetry and metaphor.10
The word Avodah has been connected to prayer since its inception. Literally Avoda means “work” because connecting to God, and bridging the gap between the words of the classic prayer book and our contemporary lives requires work. When we take on the challenge, we find that our effort is well worthwhile. It is a privilege.11
Just outside of our sanctuary, you may notice a shadow box containing the three machzors of Temple Emanu-El’s history: the Union Prayer Book, the Gates of Repentance, and now Mishkan HaNefesh.
On this 65th anniversary of our congregation, let us rejoice in the power of Jewish prayer in its own time, of our ability to adapt and grow, and see how relevant Judaism was in years past, and how relevant it is today. We rejoice in the gamut of Jewish wisdom, liturgy, and art, which has the power to change our lives for the better, especially in this season of repentance.
These High Holy Days, it is my prayer that we do not just read the words in our new Machzor, that we do just listen to the music, or glance at the art—that we do not just pray—but that we, like our ancestors, take part in avodah: allowing the sacred traditions we hold, and our creative interpretations of them to inspire us, and to transform us so that we end up in a different place—a better place—by the end of Yom Kippur.
1 “What happens when we use poetry in our prayer books—and why?” by Shelden Marder
2 “Doing it right or Doing it well? By Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman
3 Created in 1895. Interestingly the second edition came out shortly before the first.
4 The End of Liturgical Reform As We Know It: Retrieval as a NewParadigm by Leon Morris
5 The End of Liturgical Reform As We Know It: Retrieval as a NewParadigm by Leon Morris
6 Page 256-7
7 GOR 108
8 The End of Liturgical Reform As We Know It: Retrieval as a NewParadigm by Leon Morris
9 Edwin C Goldberg “The New Reform Machzor is a solution, but what is the Problem?
10 The End of Liturgical Reform As We Know It: Retrieval as a NewParadigm by Leon Morris
11 The End of Liturgical Reform As We Know It: Retrieval as a NewParadigm by Leon Morris